An Uplifting Meal
Another essay that could be summarised with Kanye West lyrics
Writing about these kinds of meals feels risky. Could come off as unpleasantly aggrandising. Especially if you’ve grown up in a Protestant environment. Unless you happen to be Anthony Bourdain, and the intention is to write pornography, it’s probably best left undone. Yet, I have come to understand that gratitude is wisdom and self-pity is sickness, so I’ll let it slide, like water off a mallard’s back.
Then, a necessary disclaimer: If you don’t enjoy the excesses of the gastronomic world, more power to you. I get it. These meals are by no means “restaurant meals” in the normal sense of the phrase. I am not in a position to try to convince you of anything. And in relative terms, it is hideously expensive for a single meal. Of course it is. Though as it is with restaurants that have achieved this level of global fame, the meal is paid for beforehand. This has a benefit of liberating the meal itself from the weight of the transaction.
This also makes these meals closer to artistic things like theatre or concerts. Framing the entire experience like this helps put it in context, in my mind at least. I refuse to call it art, despite this, not that it much matters. I do not think food exists in this realm, any more than martial arts do, despite the name. The “art” is just a word for the practice of it. At the highest echelons, they are refined expressions of craftsmanship, and they need not be anything else. It’s not exactly a corner store sandwich, it’s not quite an opera, but you get a good meal.
Now that we have the grovelling out of the way, we can get to business. I am about to tell you of a recent lunch at the so-called “Best Restaurant in the World”. For those in the know, this is of course Noma, in Copenhagen, the shining star of the “New Nordic” gastronomic movement for almost the past two decades at this point. I have wanted to eat there at least for the past 12 years of my life. As many cycles have seemed to, this one also closed at the beginning of this year. Funny that. I don’t exactly know why this place in particular had occupied such a mythical position in my mind, but it’s tougher to deny than to admit. This much is apparent, if only by the existence of the text you’re reading right now. And in addition to some internally directed, personal importance, I also have friends — former co-workers, working there now. It certainly added to the experience. Now, I get it, this is a lot of meaning to imbue into a place of business; and a lot of expectation stacked onto a single lunch.
Did it deliver then?
-Oh, you have no idea…
This lunch left no room for doubt, or even for thought. These, even more than the food itself, are the reasons for its success. From the moment of walking in through the front door, you are immersed. Immersed in what, exactly? Who knows. The “experience”, maybe. Some contemporary form of understated elegance, even. Point is, the feeling is that of being taken care of. From the first moment of being seated at the table, everything simply worked. It just happened in front of my eyes. I only had to show up. After that it was a case of sitting down and shutting up, in order to fully relax and enjoy. It’s somewhat tough to describe, I must admit. This is usually a good sign. So it is now, too.
The first serving was a flavoured broth that was served from a rather grotesque cup of two stone crab heads, moulded together with beeswax. Shocking presentation, if you’re not expecting it, I suppose. More than the appearance, I was surprised by everything else. The pleasant weight of the crab cup, the temperature of the broth (like the baby bear’s porridge: not too hot, not too cold, but just right), and how quickly it was gone.
From then on, wine started pouring and dishes were carried in front of us, at an effortlessly perfect pace. I won’t bother you with the details of their concept. You already know if you care, and even if you don’t know, it’s easy to find out. Just know that it was the “Ocean season”, which happens during Springtime, at the time of writing. All dishes (aside from the petit four) were based on ingredients from the sea. I’ve never had seafood like this. According to the menu slip the guests receive at departure, the meal consisted of 16 courses. I remember what they looked like, when looking at names on the menu, but even already on the following day I had mostly forgotten what anything tasted like. Other than delicious, that is. And I solemnly swear partying, drunk texting, and not remembering the moment of falling asleep has nothing to do with this. It would have happened regardless.
The food managed to fill my mind completely for the short moments it was in front of me, only to disappear into memory mere moments later. How absolutely delightful. Everything simply felt as it should have been. No room for questions, no room for analysis; only a good moment, dissolving into a good memory. For the duration of that four-and-a-half hours, there was not a care in the world.
And somehow, this showed in the conversation too. I don’t know if it was this feeling of carelessness, the seemingly never-emptying wine glasses, or what, that liberated the conversation, but it happened anyway. As we imbibed, the air became imbued with some kind of hope, in the best possible way. Spirits were high, victories were shared, plans were made. This is exactly what a successful meal, or a celebration of any kind, can achieve. It should look and feel like this. Not that you’d need that kind of ambiance, of course. In fact, I’m surprised and amazed this feeling could be achieved at all in such a curated environment. This speaks to what’s done correctly over there.
In a classical sense, true luxury, like true elegance, are carried on air of effortlessness, regardless of the intricacies of the plumbing in the background. This is not without its costs. The people providing the experience work around the clock. But as I hope to illustrate here, this is also not without value. Real value. Nothing tacked on. Not necessarily. The meal was lifted beyond the mundane, even if by blood, sweat, tears, and brute force, on the backs of the 80(ish) people, paid and unpaid, working at the restaurant. Thank you again, if any of you are reading.
As one of my closest friends says: if you go to eat, in order to discuss food, especially that right in front of you, you’ve already lost. He is right, of course. Beyond basic sustenance, food is not the ultimate point of a meal. It can clearly help in facilitating good things around it though. Never mind the accreditation.
Noma gained their third star last year. In the 12 years of having wanted to eat there, I have managed to become cynical towards the most recognised restaurant ranking systems. Perhaps working in the industry sensitised me to their limitations. Regardless, they deserve their praise, and admittedly it is closure to the restaurant. I’m happy for any and all whose hard work is validated by this, and Imma let you finish, but it is ultimately unnecessary externals. I am still cynical about the tire company’s travel brochure and their motivations, but I can’t be cynical about this restaurant and this meal.
Perhaps surprisingly, the food didn’t need much talking about. Many times I could only laugh. After the first few bites this became obvious. There was a mutual knowing, a silent agreement between the table. Between the whole dining room, in fact. Everyone took part in something rather amazing, and emphasising it further would have felt somehow vulgar. No explanation needed. Even though the food and flavour palate is unique, I sensed no pretence. They’ve done the work, a lot of it through their research into fermentation, and it shows.
I have no idea what “Best Restaurant in the World” might mean, even conceptually, but whatever I felt in Noma was profoundly uplifting.